invisible homeless kids

Hard to imagine that in this country way over 3 MILLION kids are without homes. H-O-M-E-L-E-S-S Kids. I don't get it. Are we willing to discard these kids? Not me. So this blog will relentlessly focus on this issue, hoping to light a spark to fuel a compassion epidemic. Chime in, argue, but do something....

Monday, March 19, 2012

Immediate Concerns: All Relative

They said nothing about being on vacation in this land of Disney. The couple with 2 young girls asked to see the room that rents for $179 a week (and $100 deposit), and when they returned the key they asked about Florida's perennial unwanted visitor, roaches. 

The desk clerk assured them these little varmints have no room in this inn. That seemed to assuage the couple and they took the room for a week, maybe more, starting the next day when their time is up in their current long-term-suite abode.

I wanted to stop them and ask them their story--why are they living in a motel--but it's too early for that kind of boldness, even for me. Besides, they seemed stressed. 

Sitting in the otherwise pleasant, but worn, motel lobby, I was mentally picking out the real tourists from the hard-time customers. I watched as groceries were toted in--not the snack food of vacationers but rather the microwavable and hot-plate-able versions to feed a family. Expensive, especially if they had to shop at the nearby 7-11 or Walgreen's. Nutrition goes out the window. Ramen noodles and cereal, not fresh fruits and veggies.

To dispel the myth about "vacationing" families not deserving to be acknowledged as "homeless," let me describe the living conditions of one family that lived here 4 brutally long years. They started out in a room with a king bed, mom, dad and their 9-month old boy. Having lost their place to live when the real estate and job bubble splattered, a friend told them about this extended stay place that cut you a deal on the rent, a mere $179 a week, including (limited) housekeeping and utilities.

With no option besides the streets, the family put their stuff in storage, believing that the day would soon come when they could reclaim their lives and their belongings. The $180 a month storage fee made sense in the beginning of their homeless-honeymoon, but soon this budget-busting expense was axed in lieu of weekly rent. Management padlocked their unit and eventually sold and/or tossed their stuff...important documents, pictures, baby mementos, wedding gifts...gone.

Their room at first was just a room, with the king-sized bed hogging most of the space. With just the 2 of them, and other than not having room for their baby to move around, they managed. He worked off-and-on, she cared for the baby. But the relative peace of this arrangement was shattered about one year into their stay.

His mother, sister and her 2 girls lost their place to live. No help available from family or friends, no Plan B, and the additional complication--one of the girls has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. So the couple asked for a slightly larger room and invited their family to join them.

1960s vintage hot plate
Lest anyone think their new room was one of those fairly spacious suites--2-bedroom, small living room, with a kitchen, wrong. It was the size of an average decent motel room with a half-wall divider making an imaginary 2nd room. No kitchen. The dresser held the hot plate and coffee maker. A tiny microwave sat nearby. They requested and received a slightly larger than dorm-sized refrigerator. 

Their space was ever-so-slightly larger than my modest 27' motorhome--a space for one. They had 8, including 4 adults, which bathroom logistics alone would be a nightmare. Three years. 

No amount of imagination on my part could perceive the stress. When I asked the beleaguered mother what was the worst part, she spewed a list of understandable realities:
  • no privacy, 
  • no room to move around, being afraid to wander outside because of drug/prostitution trade using the motel, 
  • no neighborly socializing because she didn't know who was in on the nefarious activities, 
  • not being able to have her toddler play in the sand-filled playground because feral cats used it for a litter box, 
  • no place to cook a decent meal except for an extremely limited menu routine that could be prepared in their cramped quarters, 
  • worrying about her toddler reaching up and grabbing the hot plate,
  • washing dishes in the same place they washed their bodies, and 
  • fearing that one of the fairly regular drug raids would turn ugly and inadvertently involve their extended family. 
She was beyond shame, and she knew the overwhelmed authorities would overlook their conditions because they were at least trying to care for themselves.

I asked her what was good. She just as quickly responded: 
  • we were together (an understatement!), 
  • we weren't on the streets (in a resort town that cares more about their famous mouse than the needs of people), 
  • we were able to help our family, and the school was wonderful for her sister-in-law's two girls. She gushed about how special the school staff made the girls feel. They had everything they needed to be like the housed-kids. Christmas brought an avalanche of gifts. 
She also pointed out that the unusually kind motel manager works with his customers (those who abide by the basic standard of respect for people and property). He cuts a little slack on late rent when times are rough, though expecting payback eventually. He's worked with local compassionate church-goers to set up a small food pantry and he's reached into his pocket to help when nothing else is available, as he recently did for the woman released from the hospital with wounds but no clean bandages. 

From all accounts, these families are among...well, an unknown number experiencing some version of this nomadic life. Amazingly, we have no idea how many families and single adults are in this motel-bound plight. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, doesn't consider  people in motels unless their money was used to house them. In most cases it's not. HUD doesn't report these people as homeless to Congress who set a meager dollar amount based on HUD's numbers. HUD's thinking--they're not as bad off as those on the streets or those in shelters.

I challenge that urban-based, clueless Beltway thinking. 

Being a highly mobile, inadequately sheltered, resource-challenged, largely invisible "household" is as vulnerable as many other homeless persons/families. Making no attempt to quantify this number, in fact vehemently fighting against aligning the HUD definition of homelessness with other federal agencies (that rightfully include households in motels as "homeless"), HUD does a huge disservice, especially when reporting the homeless census for Congress. Their paltry 600,000 tallied in the point-in-time count has no sense of urgency. Nor does it hold any sense of reality.

A serious move is afoot to align HUD's definition of homelessness with reality. A bipartisan bill, HR 32, The Homeless Children and Youth Act, in 2 very simple pages, does away with scads of complications surrounding HUD's confusing requirements. Yes, this will mean more people will be counted as homeless. No, communities will not be forced to serve families and youth. It will be their choice.

I firmly believe that if Congress doesn't get a clue about the alarming sense of homelessness, particularly for families and youth on their own, they will never ante up resources to meet the need. Eventually, the young ones, like the little girl on the left, will grow up, some to become homeless adults, and maybe then they'll count. Better late than never....

If you're interested in helping get this legislation passed, check our campaign's website,, for more info.

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